The Reality of Institutional Racism in Urban Planning

The 20th century city planning regulations which promoted racism

In the 20th century, changes to city planning promoted division and racism. Image by Brownstoner.

It is an unfortunate reality that racism has been a primary factor in the history of the United States, with race determining the prosperity of the country’s immigrants and citizens. A major aspect of the history of the United States, and one that paints a picture of its growth over time, is indeed the development of its urban and suburban environments. Racism has had a profound impact on many aspects of the United States which remain today, and the planning of America’s urban and suburban spaces is a prime example.

During the early development of the United States, which lasted well into the 20th century, racism was a prominent motivator and factor. It was integrated into the development of the country, and factors of it still remain today, which is identified as institutional racism. Institutional racism has been built into the majority of American development, which no doubt includes its urban and suburban environments.

It is a known fact that whites in early America were given priority, and this was the essence of American racism and institutional racism. Whites were able to obtain more jobs and therefore earn more money, and afford nicer homes. On the other hand, minorities were unable to afford these jobs due to the difficult nature that racism pinned against them.

Minorities were subject to specific actions by the government and city planners which barred them opportunities that whites had, with one of the most notable of these actions being redlining. Redlining is a process which divided cities and neighborhoods into zones, and neighborhoods which were redlined saw prices increase, including bank loans and mortgage prices, but saw land value decrease.

According to Richard Rothstein’s The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles, during this time, redlined neighborhoods were denied proper services and the minorities who lived there were discouraged from leaving, and neighborhood institutions openly supported this racism:

“…prejudiced real estate agents steered black homebuyers away from other white suburbs…banks also routinely and openly practiced redlining and refused mortgages or home improvement loans to African Americans in predominantly white neighborhoods.”

Additionally, according to Rothstein, in the redlined areas, insurance companies openly refused “casualty or title insurance in black neighborhoods, or [made] it available only at premium rates”. This in turn led to a mass exodus of white people living in these areas, as they did not want to be subject to these higher rates.

Whites were able to sell their homes and flee to the suburbs, which is a process referred to as White Flight. Minorities living in these areas were commonly unable to sell their homes, either due to their inability to afford the process or being denied by companies because of their skin color.

A Redlining map of northwestern Alameda county, including the cities of Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda.

The government was a crucial player in the advocacy of racism. They openly implemented racist policies which divided citizens based on race, giving advantages to whites, while oppressing minority groups. Of this, Rothstein states:

“Governmental actions in support of a segregated labor market supplemented these racial housing policies and prevented most African Americans from acquiring the economic strength to move to middle-class communities, even if they had been permitted to do so.”

Author Karen Brodkin provides a similar take in her piece “How Did Jews Become White Folks?”, where she discusses intensely the idea that suburbanization in America was largely dependent on white upward mobility, and the government supported it.

She claims that the intentional denial of crucial institutions in redlined areas for minorities propelled whites living in these areas to flee to the suburbs, creating mass suburbanization, the population shift from urban areas to suburbs and the spawning of mass suburban sprawl. Brodkin makes it clear that the government had a crucial role in the promotion of this, doing nothing to stop it:

“The record is very clear that instead of seizing the opportunity to end institutionalized racism, the federal government did its best to shut and double seal the postwar window of opportunity in African Americans’ faces. It consistently refused to combat segregation in the social institutions that were key for upward mobility: education, housing, and employment.”

Additionally, the government implemented bills and programs which specifically benefitted whites and hurt minorities; of this, Brodkin writes:

“Moreover, federal programs that were themselves designed to assist demobilized GIs and young families systematically discriminated against African Americans. Such programs reinforced white/nonwhite racial distinctions even as intrawhite racialization was falling out of fashion.”

Through the lenses of many, the government openly contributed to systemic and institutional racism in the United States, and Rothstein and Brodkin excellently highlight this lens.

While it is truly disheartening and demoralizing that racism was such a component of the American government and way of life for most of the country’s existence, including the core era of its development, and so-called “Golden Age” (for whites, that is) of the late 1940s and 1950s, what is potentially even more disheartening is the fact that the government implemented these racist policies in such a way that they would last for decades later, and would be almost impossible to root out.

This is what we are left with today, and although America and the global society have generally been successful in moving away from this racism, the sad truth is that institutional racism still remains to this day. This is evident in many aspects of the country, but specifically with the urban and suburban planning of regions in America.

Today, the majority of suburban sprawl is white, due to the effects of White Flight, and neighborhoods in cities which were redlined are still mostly racially made up of minorities, and are in deteriorating conditions. This is evident in neighborhood maps of cities — New York City is a great example — which show racial density by area.

Even in a city as diverse and culturally mixed as New York, the effects of Redlining and other racist policies can be seen in this 2015 demographics map.

Even today, the maps still indicate that many parts of the city are racially separated, with whites living in some areas, and minorities living in others, and very few mixing. The previously-redlined neighborhoods, those which largely consist of minority groups, still often suffer with deteriorating conditions, higher crime rate, and less government support and funding.

Fortunately, society has arguably begun to move in the correct direction. The majority of society has studied this terrible racism, is informed about it, and openly rejects it. Anthropologists have developed methods to study race and inform people about it: they study processes by which racial categories are created and developed, as well as racial formation, the process by which the context of race is defined by political, economic and cultural forces, and how they are viewed. This in turn educates more people about the devastating racism that plagued our country, and through institutional racism, still does.

As for the physical remnants of this government-supported racism, the conditions of previously-redlined neighborhoods have begun to improve via gentrification, and neighborhoods in many cities are seeing diverse mixing of all races, including whites and minorities living together and openly accepting each other.

Nonetheless, the large gap between races in America, evident in a large majority of factors but arguably most noticeable in the urban and suburban planning of the nations’ cities and regions, is still a large issue which may never truly be fixed until institutional racism is rooted out for good.

Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.

Native New Yorker. Pizza, Sports, Games, Life. Writing about whatever my heart desires. Follow me for more articles!

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